Under White House pressure, the House Government Operations Committee quickly reversed itself yesterday and killed a provision to make the government the sole purchasing agent of foreign oil.
The committee then approved for House action, 35 to 2, a bill pulling the scattered energy functions of government together into a Cabinet-level department to administer the national energy policy President Carter has asked Congress to enact. The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee hopes to finish on the bill early next week.
The proposal to have the U.S. government rather than private oil companies negotiate oil prices with Arab and other producing nations in an effort to hold down prices was attached to the Department of Energy bill Thursday afternoon by a vote of 18 to 16. Yesterday morning to the committee voted to reconsider that action by a vote of 24 to 17 and then rejected the proposal by a voice vote.
The actions was turned around by the switched votes ot two Democrats - Reps. William S. Moorehead (Pa) and Elliot H Levitas (Ga) - and the votes of several members who had been absent Thurday.
Six Republican who were absent from Thuradsy's meeting attended yesterday to vote to strike the provision. So did two Democrats - Reps. Barbara Jordan (Tex.) and Dante B. Fascell (Fla.). On the other hand Rep. John W. Jenrette Jr., (D.S.C.), whose proxy vote was cast against the provision Thursday, voted reconsidering it yesterday.
The oil industry opposes the plan, calling it a first step toward nationalization. But two members switching to the opposition said oil pressure had nothing to do with their actions.
Moorehead said he is opposed to making the government the sole purchasing agent and voted for the provision "to put the fear of god in the oil industry."
Levitas said he favors the provision but feels it needs more consideration and refinement and was too important to be approved with only a few minute's debate. Also, he said, attachment of the provision probably would require that the bill be sent to the House Commerce Committee, which would delay creation of the needed department.
Levitas said his vote for the provision Thursday was intended to "send a message" to the administration that this provision had support in Congress and should be carefully considered by the administration. The message apparently got through.
Yesterday morning, Levitas said, he received a telephone call from James R. Schlesinger, who would be secretary of the new department. He said Schlesinger said a study of government purchase of foreign oil would be given very high priority by the new department. Levitas then moved to reconsider the action. A vote can be reconsidered only by the motion of a member who had voted on the winning side.
Rep. Michael T. Blouin (D-Iowa) said there must have been a "great snow at National Airport last night as the Lear jets" filled with oilmen rushed to Washington to try to undo the committee action.
The new department would absorb independent agencies such as the Federal Energy Administration and Energy Research and Development Administration as well as pieces of other departments that now deal with energy.
Committee Chairman Jack Brooks (D-Tex.) said the administration is happy with the bill as reported to the House for action in about two weeks.
The big unresolved issue before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee is whether the secretary should be empowered to set the price of natural gas as the President requested and the House committee approved. This function is now performed by the Federal Power Commission, an independent regulatory agency, which would be abolished.
Several senators say this would place too much power in the hands of the secretary. For several days they have discussed alternative plans, such as giving the power to a presidentially appointed board with veto power in the secretary or President.
Sen. Abraham Ribicoff (D-Conn.). committee chairman, said half a dozen committee members have now agreed on a proposal to empower a broad to set natural gas prices subject to a veto by the President.
Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) said the President should be empowered to make a positive decision not just to veto the board's action. That could lead to an impasse between them, said Nunn. Ribicoff replied that this is the procedure by which the Civil Aeronautics Board rules on international routes and was worked well.
He said a constitutional problem of lack of due process could arise if the President were empowered to make an unappealable decision on the price of gas.
The Senate committee will meet again Monda y to try to settle the price-setting issue.